The man behind others' hits makes an album all his own

When Bonnie Raitt was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland this year, she performed one of her biggest hits - "A Thing Called Love," a John Hiatt song.

On the strength of another Hiatt-penned title tune, Eric Clapton and B.B. King's "Riding with the King" rode to the Top 10 on Billboard magazine's Top 200 album chart - and No. 1 on the blues chart.

Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Jeff Healey ("Angel Eyes"), Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson, and Jewel are just some of the artists who revere - and perform - Hiatt's work. Critics treat him with equal respect. On Sept. 26, Hiatt will release his latest album, "Crossing Muddy Waters."

He's earned such high regard because he's skilled at combining hook-filled melodies and lyrics that, while not overly complex, are rich with imagery, depth, and emotion - and sometimes, slyly witty social observations. Yet he's never won a Grammy (though he has been nominated) and as a performer his own best chart showing was at No. 47 for "Perfectly Good Guitar" in 1993.

But Hiatt's hardly bemoaning these career twists. In fact, he's ecstatic about the success of "Riding with the King" - and not just because the royalties help feed his wife's horses on their farm outside of Nashville, Tenn.

"Eric Clapton actually gave me a phone call [for permission to use the song]. I was thrilled," Hiatt says, speaking from his home office. "I didn't think it was him. I thought it was one of my ... friends pulling my leg."

The humble songwriter was also surprised to learn of a just-released tribute album, "Rollin' Into Memphis - Songs of John Hiatt," featuring James Cotton, Irma Thomas, and Odetta, among others.

"Odetta is doing one of my songs, which totally blew my mind!" Hiatt says. As a child, he listened to her work on Vanguard, the label that, with online enterprise Emusic.com, is co-releasing his new album.

It's the first time he's done an all-acoustic album, a fact that surprises even him. After 26 years of recording, he says, "It's about time."

But the folk, country, and gospel-tinged disc wasn't planned - at least, not as his first album of new material since 1997's "Little Head."

Hiatt and his band, the Goners (guitar/mandolin/slide player Dave Immergluck and bassist Davey Faragher) had been recording a rock album. But Hiatt and his then-label Capitol "just couldn't see eye to eye on the merits of the music."

So he left Capitol and became what he calls a "free agent."

The band recorded "Crossing Muddy Waters" in four days at a studio outside of Nashville, not far from his farm. At the time, no record label was involved.

Though the music may lack turmoil, "Crossing Muddy Waters" has its share of dark lyrics. For example, in "Take It Down," Hiatt sings: "Tears all rusted on my face/ and I'm just an empty place/ where your love used to fit."

"I remember coming home and telling my wife, 'Honey, I didn't really realize it, but these songs are all [about] breaking up.... Don't take it personally,' " Hiatt says.

These songs are not about his life, he says, though some, like "Only the Song Survives," are based on real-life events.

"You live another life through your songs," Hiatt says. "I'm sure it's parallel in a lot of respects to reality, but it is fiction. But you know, the theory of good fiction is that it's supposed to open up possibilities. Hopefully, that's what I'm doing."

Hiatt is also working on a rock album for release next summer. In October, he plans to perform solo, then hook up with Immergluck and Faragher in November.

"But I'm really excited about this new record," he adds, "and coming out and folk singing."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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